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 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -Noriaki Kinoshita trudged off the practice field and dropped to one knee, the sweat flowing on a blistering Georgia day.
If there was ever a time to reconsider what he's gotten himself into, this was it.
But not even a grueling practice in temperatures creeping toward 100 degrees was enough to make Kinoshita lose sight of his goal: He hopes to be the first Japanese player to get on the field for a real NFL game.
``I want to be, ummm, how do you say it? A pioneer? Yes, I want to be a pioneer,'' Kinoshita said Wednesday, flashing an optimistic smile.
The 24-year-old receiver is getting his chance with the Atlanta Falcons after spending the last three years in NFL Europa, which served as the primary conduit to American football for foreign-born players.
Kinoshita showed enough promise, especially as a return specialist, to earn an invitation to Falcons' camp and a chance to play in some exhibition games. He'll likely take a few snaps in Atlanta's preseason opener against the New York Jets on Friday night.
``He has gotten better each day,'' Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. ``Everybody loves him and he goes a great job. He works extremely hard. He has started to understand what we are doing route-wise and how we are running those routes. When we give him the ball, he usually makes the catch. He is competing and doing a good job.''
Kinoshita's spot doesn't count against the mandatory roster limits, part of an ongoing effort by the league to broaden football's appeal in other countries. The program is more important than ever in light of the NFL's decision to shut down its money-losing European league.
While the chances of Kinoshita being on Atlanta's 53-man roster when the regular season begins a month from now are remote at best, he didn't come to camp merely hoping for a spot on the practice squad.
``I want to make the team,'' he said.
At 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, Kinoshita certainly lacks the size to strike fear into opposing cornerbacks. But the Falcons have been impressed with his speed, which at least gives him a chance to hold his own against players who are much bigger, stronger and faster than anyone he's played against.
``It's very, very hard,'' he said. ``The NFL players are very quick. The practices are very, very quick. Everything is quick, quick, quick.''
Well, not everything.
``The meetings are long,'' Kinoshita said, rolling his eyes.
Kinoshita excelled as a return specialist for the Amsterdam Admirals. He led the league in its final season by averaging 19.2 yards on punt returns, with one touchdown. The previous season, he was first in kickoff returns with a 29.9-yard average.
Petrino liked what he saw on tape.
``He was fast, caught the ball well and was also able to return punts and kickoffs,'' the coach said. ``
The Falcons have yet to use Kinoshita on returns, preferring to let him focus on learning the complex routes of the passing game - a process made even tougher by his difficulty communicating in English. He had 21 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns this past season in Europe.
Growing up in Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, Kinoshita spurned two of the country's most popular sports: baseball and soccer. Football is more of an afterthought - Kinoshita compared it to amateur wrestling in this country - though it is played in high schools and universities.
Kinoshita was hooked on football at early age, his interest piqued by an older brother.
``My brother played football,'' he said. ``I went to watch him practice and I've wanted to play football since I was 5 years old.''
What was the appeal?
``It's very fast,'' Kinoshita said, ``and the contact. I like the contact.''
He tried soccer for only one season and didn't even bother with baseball, convinced that he was best suited for wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. He played quarterback and safety in high school, then shifted to receiver when he got to Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
Now, he wants to play in the NFL. If Kinoshita somehow made the team, he would undoubtedly be followed by a huge media contingent from Japan.
He can only imagine what that would mean for football in his native country.
``Maybe,'' Kinoshita said, ``it would become one of the most popular sports. Maybe people would change their minds about it in Japan.''

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